Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, ed. Kate Wolford

Saturday, 26 January 2019 09:56 Victoria Silverwolf

Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga





Kate Wolford


(World Weaver Press, January 22, 2019, pb, 195 pp.)


"Vasilisa the Wise" by Kate Forsyth (reprint, not reviewed)
"A Tale Soon Told" by Lissa Sloan
"Baba Yaga: Her Story" by Jill Marie Ross
"The Partisan and the Witch" by Charlotte Honigman
"The Swamp Hag's Apprentice" by Szmeralda Shanel
"Boy Meets Witch" by Rebecca A. Coates
"Teeth" by Jessamy Corob Cook

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

Baba Yaga, a witch found in Eastern European folklore, comes to life in half a dozen new stories. The tales share many common elements. Baba Yaga lives in a hut standing on giant chicken legs. She flies through the air using a mortar and pestle. Her home is surrounded by a fence made of human bones. She has three horsemen who serve her. These symbolize the parts of the day. The white rider stands for dawn, the red for midday, and the black for night. Although a fearsome figure, she is sometimes helpful to those who meet her demands. Many stories feature a girl who must perform impossible tasks to win a favor from her. If she fails, the witch will devour her.

"A Tale Soon Told" by Lissa Sloan begins with a common version of this theme. Two wicked stepsisters force a girl to visit Baba Yaga to obtain fire. The narrator performs the incredible feats required of her with the help of an enchanted doll. A traditional legend would end here, but the narrator returns twice. As a young woman, she seeks Baba Yaga's aid with a faithless lover. In old age, she finds her final fate.

The author uses the Baba Yaga myth to portray the various stages in a woman's life. Other magical elements, similar to those found in fairy tales, appear. Sometimes these seem arbitrary. The story's ending is predictable.

As its title implies, "Baba Yaga: Her Story" by Jill Marie Ross relates the origin of the mythical witch. She begins as a homeless child with supernatural powers. Desperate for a friend, she lures girls into her forest, only to change them into trees and bushes when they disappoint her. She meets the father who deserted her when she was an infant. He proves to be an evil ogre. Over time, the girl evolves into Baba Yaga, and the final battle with her father ensues.

This story stresses the importance of family and companionship. The author works hard to make Baba Yaga a sympathetic character. Despite this effort, her actions are often harmful, making it difficult to empathize with her.

"The Partisan and the Witch" by Charlotte Honigman is set during the Second World War. A Polish woman fighting the Germans seeks the help of Baba Yaga. The witch's three servants, riding motorcycles instead of horses, have switched their allegiance to the Nazis. As in other stories, she must perform impossible jobs, with magical help, to obtain the supernatural weapons needed to destroy the sinister riders.

The author incorporates Jewish folklore into the story. This, and the historical setting, are the most interesting aspects. Other parts are less original.

"The Swamp Hag's Apprentice" by Szmeralda Shanel takes place in the southern part of the United States. The familiar theme of a girl sent by her evil stepsisters to fetch fire from the witch is related in backwoods vernacular. Instead of ending in the usual way, the tale concludes with the things the girl learns from Baba Yaga, and how she uses them to become a great healer.

Traditional African-American beliefs and practices add local color. The section dealing with the girl's lessons, despite intriguing details of folk magic, slows the story down and seems out of place.

"Boy Meets Witch" by Rebecca A. Coates is a comedy set in modern times. A teenager visits Baba Yaga, who lives in a trailer instead of a hut. He seeks protection from a bully. The work he has to do for the witch is difficult and unpleasant, but hardly as impossible as those in traditional tales. The way in which she repays him is unexpected, and leads to multiple complications.

Unlike most comic fantasies, this story never becomes silly or sophomoric. The plot twist in the middle comes as a delightful surprise. The author understands the adolescent mind. The hapless protagonist's misadventures, although farcical, win a knowing smile from the reader.

In sharp contrast, "Teeth" by Jessamy Corob Cook is a dark and brooding horror story. The narrator is a woman who has become Baba Yaga's black rider. Her guilt over an act of violence in her past led her to seek out the witch. Flashbacks reveal the nature of her crime, the way in which remorse led her to abandon her husband and child, and her strange relationship with Baba Yaga.

The act that dooms the narrator to a hopeless quest is truly shocking. It also provides a powerful image, which recurs throughout the story. The climax provides a touch of bitter irony.

Victoria Silverwolf is most familiar with Baba Yaga from a section of the suite Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.